ISELIN — From the opening tip of Saturday’s matinee, the J.F. Kennedy High School girls basketball team was in control.
Behind the hot shooting of seniors Taylor Freeman and Jolie Tang at the outset and the physical inside play of Rachel Andrejcak in the fourth quarter, J.F. Kennedy pulled away for a 66-52 victory over Metuchen to grab a stranglehold on the Greater Middlesex Conference Blue Division race.
Freeman and Tang combined for seven 3-pointers on the day, including five in the first quarter to open the offense up. Freeman finished with 24 points and Tang chipped in 19 points to go with eight rebounds. In the fourth quarter, when Metuchen (10-8) made its last push, Tang was 5-6 from the free throw line to ice the victory.
“Taylor played great; she’s a senior leader and really offensive-minded,” J.F. Kennedy head coach Heidi Hodnett said. “She and Jolie both did a great job early in the game, spotting up for 3’s and when they went to their man-to-man defense in the fourth quarter, we really put a focus on getting Rachel the ball.”
Andrejcak battled through foul trouble and a box-and-one defense in the game’s opening three quarters to finish with 12 points and 18 rebounds. As a team, J.F. Kennedy (16-1) out-rebounded Metuchen 43-31.
“When we see Rachel grabbing those rebounds, it makes us excited to do the same and we just jump up and grab them,” Freeman said.
In the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, Metuchen did everything it could to get back into the game, using a 6-0 burst to close a 13-point hole into a 48-41 disadvantage, but consecutive Andrejcak layups squashed any chance of a comeback.
Metuchen’s Cassie Smith did all she could to bring the Bulldogs back, scoring a game-high 33 points and pulling down 14 rebounds, but she did so while taking 31 shots. Smith, who averages 28.7 points per game, tops in the GMC, was 11-31 from the field and 10-12 from the free throw line, and scored 11 of her points in the final eight minutes. But Lianne Cifrodelli was the only other Metuchen player to reach double-figures, with 12 points.
“Cassie is a phenomenal player; she does a lot of things for her team and we just tried to get our best defenders out there,” Hodnett said. “I was trying to force Cassie to take more outside shots, because every time she was driving she was getting a good roll to the hoop and she gets herself in great positions. She got a lot of and-1 calls because we didn’t stop her far enough from the basket and force her to take some of those bad shots. But any day we come away with a victory, I’ll take it.”
J.F. Kennedy closed the game on a 12-6 run, as Tang knocked down four free throws and Andrejcak completed a 3-point play. For the game, the Mustangs shot 23-67 (34 percent) but made 12-19 free throws to seal the win.
“The momentum from the start of the game carried us the rest of the way,” Freeman said. “We got excited and ready to go and it definitely helped. Our confidence goes up when our shots go in and when we need to get inside, we can. “As a captain, I know I need to lead by example and my teammates are so great.”
After winning 59-54 on Jan. 8, the Mustangs have earned a season sweep over Metuchen to lead the division standings by five games. If Middlesex wins its final three games and J.F. Kennedy loses its final three, the teams will tie for the Blue Division title.